In the wake of the recent espionage scandal, it is time for the U.S. and Germany to start cleaning up the damage and rebuild the relationship. Geopolitical hotheads on both sides of the Atlantic seem to forget two critical parameters:
For the U.S., Germany is far too important as a national power, a European leader, and a global player for the U.S. to not pay close attention to its policy choices.
For Germany, the U.S. has been and remains crucially important for its economic, political, and security interests.
This bilateral relationship is embedded in so many levels of interdependence that it is impossible to untangle it no matter what frictions and clashes over policy and perspectives emerge within it.
However, twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that same relationship evidently needs some adjustments. There are things we must continue to rely on in dealing with common concerns. But there are also things we should not take for granted.
The common concerns include our shared strategic security; our economic prosperity; and our need to protect the global goods for which we both bear responsibility, be it securing the health of our shared planet, dealing with the social and economic asymmetries around the globe, or strengthening the systems of government, justice, and democracy that have served us both so well. We have often differed in our means, but there can be no doubt that the Federal Republic of Germany and the U.S. spent the second half of that last century and the first decade of the twenty-first working closely together on these shared goals. They are just as important today.
Yet it is also true that both countries have changed and been changed by the events around them. A fast-moving set of forces is transforming the environment in which Germany and the U.S. have grown strong. A globalized (and digitized) world brings both new opportunities and vulnerabilities, and neither nostalgia nor hurt feelings in Berlin or Washington are sufficient foreign policy tools for today’s challenges.
Germany and the U.S. cannot look at each other and not see these changes impacting the relationship.
They also cannot avoid a necessary and candid discussion about what we both are concerned with when it comes to dealing with the challenges and choices ahead and how they need each other in meeting them.
The clash over the intelligence policies in the past year has brought this all to the surface now—finally. The use of the instruments of intelligence and surveillance seems to be a poster child for the changing parameters of German-American relations.
In response to its perception of a post 9/11 world, the U.S. has developed unmatched extensive global intelligence operations and technological capacities. The shock of its vulnerability generated a focus on using all its tools to prevent anything like 9/11 happening again. So far, those tools have been successful.
That capacity did not hold the U.S. from working closely with Germany’s own intelligence services in pursuing the threats and dangers the two countries face. In fact, it served the interests of Germany as well in helping to prevent attacks on German soil.
But in the wake of last year’s revelations by former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, sensitivity to government surveillance has grown exponentially. The blowback against the NSA revelations in the U.S. is a measure of the political controversy over the reach of government surveillance of its own citizens. The same applies to Germany, particularly in light of the history of two dictatorships in the past century.
Both countries rather helplessly struggle with achieving a careful balance between protecting both privacy and maintaining security. Both are in a race to keep up with technological opportunities to achieve that balance—while preventing their misuse by governments, corporations, and other interest groups, including terrorist cells.
Germans and Americans are having a very public debate on the difficulty of finding the right equation between security and privacy. Yet it is lacking substance. It must include a better understanding of what the needs and benefits of government intelligence operations are in today’s world while working on how to maintain oversight over the tools we are creating.
That debate is particularly challenging for Germans given a tendency to avoid recognizing the importance of modern security instruments and therefore not investing in them. It leaves Germans dependent on the capacity of others—that is, the U.S.—to help with anticipating and preventing common threats.
Germany’s enhanced global leadership also comes with all too often stubbornly neglected responsibilities of being a major power. And that includes accepting the reality of surveillance and espionage as part of the catalogue of foreign policy equipment.
For its part, the United States urgently needs to understand that the enormous global reach of its intelligence also requires respect and recognition of the parameters set down by its own allies. There needs to be common ground if there is to be a shared effort in meeting shared challenges.
Germany and the U.S. often come at shared challenges with different narratives and prescriptions. This current clash offers a unique opportunity to renew a dialogue about both.
These two nations forged a partnership over many decades capable of dealing with ambitions and disagreements. We may be seeing a dramatic weakening of that partnership now if we cannot restore a foundation of cooperation at this critical point.